Ramphele, Mamphela 1947–
Mamphela Ramphele 1947–
Civil activist, physician, educational administrator
Dr. Mamphela Ramphele’s (Mam-pee-luh Ram-fay-lay) resume is pretty impressive. An activist and author, Ramphele has earned several degrees, including a medical degree, two post-graduate diplomas, a Bachelor’s of Commerce in Administration, and a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology. She founded two health centers for the poor and became an expert in community development. In addition, she has served on the boards of numerous corporations, received ten honorary degrees from international universities, and assumed the highest post at a prestigious university. In 2000 Ramphele was appointed senior director of the World Bank. Given that Ramphele was born poor, black, and female in apartheid South Africa, where as she recalled in her autobiography, Across Boundaries, one white teacher often reminded her “you were born to work for [whites],” these accomplishments, though admirable in their own right, are nothing less than awe-inspiring.
Mamphela Aletta Ramphele was born December 28, 1947, in a rural part of the Northern Province of South Africa. Her mother, Rangoato Rahab, and her father, Pitsi Eliphaz, were both schoolteachers. Despite the size of their family, which included seven children, the extreme poverty of their village, and the racial discrimination that characterized apartheid South Africa, Ramphele’s life was relatively privileged due to her parents’ education and their roles as teachers. Instead of a mud floor hut, they had a brick structure to live in, however they still had to share an outdoor toilet with the rest of the village and travel miles by mule to visit relatives. In spite of these difficult realities, Ramphele’s parents were proud, intelligent, and hardworking—traits Ramphele inherited.
Naturally, education was highly valued in her family, and Ramphele was an exceptional student. She recalled in her autobiography, “I got easily bored in class. I was rarely challenged intellectually.” She preferred the company of adults and often tagged along with her mother instead of playing. Though her mother was a stern disciplinarian, she was also a non-conformist; Rahab brazenly took meat from the men’s pot and distributed it to her family. At that time, tribal constraints demanded that meat be cooked by the men and enjoyed first by them before sharing with women and children. Rahab’s bold move weakened that tradition and freed the women of the village to stand up for themselves a bit more. No doubt her brave actions had
Born December 28, 1947, in South Africa; daughter of Rangoato Rahib and Pîtsî EHphaz; married and divorced twice; children: Hiumelo and Malusi. Education: Natal Medical School, medical degree, 1972; University of Cape Town, Ph.D. in Social Anthropology, 1991; University of South Africa, Bachelor’s of Commerce in Administration; University of Witwatersrand, diplomas in Tropical Health and Hygiene and Public Health.
Career: Political activist, physician, educational administrator. Founded two community medical centers; University of Cape Town, academic researcher, deputy vice chancellor, 1991-96, appointed vice chancellor, 1996; World Bank, managing director of human development, 2000-.
Awards: Medal of Distinction, Barnard College; elected member, Institute of Medicine; fellow, Bunting Institute, Radcliff College, 1988-89; honorary doctorates include: Doctor of Medicine, Sheffield University, 1998; Doctor of Laws, University of Michigan, 1998; Doctor of Laws, Princeton University, 1997; Doctorate of Science, Tufts University, 1991; Doctorate in Humane Letters, Hunter College of City of New York, 1984.
Addresses: Office —The World Bank, 1818 H Street NW, Washington, DC, 20433, (202) 473-2419.
an effect on Ramphele, contributing in part to the activist she would become.
Ramphele began to recognize the harsh prejudices of apartheid at an early age when her older sister, Mashadi, was expelled from high school for participating in a demonstration against South African policies. It was a painful blow to a family that so valued education. Soon after, when Ramphele was just eight years old, her family was forced to separate for nine months due to political uprisings in the village. Fearing for his family’s safety, her father sent her pregnant mother and the children to ride out the tension with distant family members.
Ramphele’s education into the realities of institutionalized racism continued as she entered boarding school in 1962. The beds crawled with lice and bed bugs, the food was scarce and often spoilt, and many of the teachers did not hide their opinions that blacks were not worthy or even capable of an education. In addition, students were required to work for the teachers and administrators as servants. But, thanks to a few caring teachers, a tight circle of friends, and her own brimming intellect, Ramphele managed to pass at the top of her class.
As it neared time for her to move onto secondary training, she decided to pursue medicine. It was an outrageous choice. There were very few white female doctors, even fewer black ones. The white minister that oversaw her village scoffed at her choice, noting that even his daughter couldn’t become a doctor. Her parents, not happy with her choice, nonetheless supported her. She recalled in the Dallas Morning News, “It was not the desire to serve which influenced my career choice, but the passion for freedom to be my own mistress in a society in which being black and woman defined the boundaries within one could legitimately operate.” Ramphele was accepted at Natal Medical School in 1967. This accomplishment was darkened by the death of her father in the same year.
Ramphele began medical school as an eager country girl with dreams of freedom for herself. Soon after encountering the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), centered at Natal University and led by the charismatic Steven Biko, a political activist was born. BCM, as Ramphele described it to the Los Angeles Times, “was a movement intended to enable black people to assert themselves in a political environment in which being black meant being inferior.” It was a radical new way of thinking. Still, she felt she had to push even further. She began smoking and drinking, donned micro shorts called “hot pants,” and stood up to anyone who challenged her. In response to critics of her defiant behavior, she wrote in her autobiography, “As a woman, an African woman at that, one had to be outrageous to be heard, let alone taken seriously.”
As she became more involved in the BCM, she also fell in love with Steve Biko. However, she married an old boyfriend on a holiday break from school. Her marriage was a mistake and ended barely a year later. It was too late for her and Biko though. In light of her own marriage, he, in turn, married another. Still their affair continued and in May of 1974, she bore his child, a girl named Lerato, which means “love.” Tragically the baby died at two months.
In 1973 the Nationalist government had banned the top leaders of the BCM, including Biko. Banning was a psychologically-trying form of punishment that required the banned person to retreat to a distant geographical zone. The banned person was not allowed to associate with more than one person at a time and was subjected to constant surveillance and harassment by the police.
Having graduated medical school in 1972, Ramphele moved to King Williamstown (Biko’s banning area). There she undertook the development of the Zanempilo Community Health Center which opened in January of 1975. The role of the health center would be crucial to the surrounding poor black townships. As the first black-owned, black-run center it was not only a much needed source of medical care, but also a source of pride among the community. The center came to represent the fruition of BCM philosophy—self-liberation and independence—and spawned many community-based projects, including basic preventative medicine classes, vegetable gardens, and small business initiatives. She told The Dallas Morning News of that time, “I said, ’Why not work for yourselves?’ I told them they could make bricks and artifacts and sell their vegetables and still breast-feed their babies. I wanted them to appreciate the importance of being independent.”
As Zanempilo flourished, so did the message of the BCM. Students across the country began to reject the poor education they were offered and demanded that they no longer be taught in Afrikaans, the official language of the white government. On June 16, 1976, thousands of schoolchildren in Soweto took to the streets to protest. The government responded by opening fire on the crowd. The first to die was a thirteen-year-old boy. Many more would also be killed, hundreds wounded. This led to riots throughout the country and caused the government to crack down harder on advocates of BCM. In 1977 Ramphele was detained in prison for four months and finally banned to a desolate part of Northern South Africa. That same year, pregnant with Biko’s child, she learned that Biko had been arrested for breaking his ban. He died in police custody on September 12th, a result of severe beatings. Ramphele gave birth to Hlumelo, whose name means “shoot from a fallen branch,” in 1978.
Ramphele founded another medical clinic and installed more development projects including a literacy project and a day-care center. She also completed her Bachelor of Commerce degree, and earned postgraduate diplomas in Tropical Hygiene and Health in 1981 and Public Health in 1982. She also briefly married and bore another son, Malusi. She managed all this while living under the constant watch of security police. Describing how she endured their presence, she told The Washington Post, “I just took them on and invited them in for tea. They were shaking and I was cool.”
In 1983 Ramphele’s ban was lifted. She was free to go where she wished. She headed to Cape Town. In 1986 she became a research fellow at the University of Cape Town and discovered anthropology. Academic success came quickly. She was awarded a Carnegie Distinguished International Fellowship at the Bunting Institute of Radcliff College in 1988 and spent a semester in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That same year, she and Francis Wilson published Uprooting Poverty: the South African Challenge. The book is considered the definitive study of the socio-economic problems plaguing post-apartheid South Africa.
She received a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology in 1991 and the same year was appointed deputy vice chancellor of the University. Her job was to take charge of the Equal Opportunity Policy of the University. After over twenty years as a radical activist in the Black Consciousness Movement, encouraging black South Africans to develop self-confidence and learn not to rely on the government, she found herself in the position of making sure that the opportunities were there for them, without just handing them over. She told South Africa’s Daily Mail and Guardian, “[The black students] thought, here’s our mum coming to solve problems and look after us. But I’m not the mothering type. When students came crying to me with their problems I didn’t accept them unconditionally. I pushed them. I challenged them. I wouldn’t let them use [the university’s] racism as an excuse for not performing.” Her actions caused some of the black students to think of her as just another part of the system. It also gained her a lot of respect, prompting the Daily Mail and Guardian to describe her as, “…fearless and hyper-confident, intellectually razor-sharp, and refreshingly independent-minded in a world full of hacks.”
In 1996 Ramphele was promoted to vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, a position equivalent to president of an American university. Not only was she the first Black African to serve as vice chancellor, but she was also the first woman. The significance of her appointment to an emerging South Africa cannot be underestimated. As vice chancellor, she maintained her focus on developing equity among the students, not just affirmative action. “We’re not simply going to affirm people because they happen to be black. The difficulty is how one helps young people coming from this divided past to see themselves as South Africans and to celebrate the diversity that they bring to the University of Cape Town,” she told PBS’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Her successes are visible in the student body. In the early 1980s only 10% of the students were black, by 1997 it was 46%. With her legacy of encouraging young minds, not making excuses for them, the percentage continues to rise.
Ramphele made yet another historic move in 1999, becoming the highest ranking African member of the World Bank, with her appointment as the managing director for human development. Responsible for third world development in education, health, nutrition, population, and social protection, she was in a position to put into practice policies that could help liberate oppressed peoples throughout the world. Despite the massive complexity of her task, her philosophy was simple. “I still believe the best way to distribute wealth is to educate the populace…. Our people must believe we can be a great country. Nothing undermines a people like the expectation of failure,” she told The Dallas Morning News. As she told Charlayne Hunter-Gault of PBS, “Liberating [myself] psychologically from that trap [of black inferiority], there was no stopping me. I was able…to really transcend the constraints that kept people down.” As senior director of the World Bank, Ramphele has been granted an opportunity to provide that same liberation for some of the millions of people that face poverty, oppression, violence, and despair in the world today.
A Bed Called Home: Life in the Migrant Labour Hostels of Cape Town, David Philip Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa, 1993.
(Editor with M. Pityana, M, Mpumlwana and L. Wilson) Bounds of Possibility: The Legacy of Steve
(Editor with Chris McDowell and Jacklyn Cock), Restoring the Land: Environment and Change in
Post-Apartheid South Africa, Panos, London, 1992.
(With Francis Wilson) Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge, W.W Norton, New York, 1989.
Mamphela Ramphele, Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader, The Feminist Press, New York, 1997.
The Dallas Morning News, March 8, 2000.
Daily Mail and Guardian (South Africa), 1991.
Los Angeles Times, August 31, 1997.
The Washington Post, April 25, 1997.
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